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Bil Gilbert
July 07, 1969
With the help of his doctor and his conscience, the average citizen makes most of his own decisions about drugs. But the athlete, a participant in organized games, cannot be permitted this luxury. If the pleasures of competition and joys of victory are worth keeping, sport must realize that it is HIGH TIME TO MAKE SOME RULES
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July 07, 1969

High Time To Make Some Rules

With the help of his doctor and his conscience, the average citizen makes most of his own decisions about drugs. But the athlete, a participant in organized games, cannot be permitted this luxury. If the pleasures of competition and joys of victory are worth keeping, sport must realize that it is HIGH TIME TO MAKE SOME RULES

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Drugs can kill sport. That, one assumes, reflecting upon the filled ball parks, the jammed arenas and the sorry-no-standing-room reports from events such as the Masters, ought to be an exaggeration. But it is far from excessive to conclude that the increasing use of drugs by athletes poses a significant menace to sport, one that the athletic Establishment is assiduously trying to ignore. While commissioners, owners, managers, coaches and trainers pretend that the situation in 1969 is no different than it was 30 years ago when the most stimulating thing you got at a drugstore was a soda, the truth is that today's athletes are popping more pills for more purposes than are dreamt of in almost anybody's philosophy—or pharmacy.

In spite of this, only one major American sport has any drug regulations. That is horse racing, and though the subject of its attention is not human but animal, it provides an instructive example of how to face up to the drug problem in sport.

It can be claimed that horse racing is the sport with the worst reputation for doping. In a technical sense the reputation is deserved, since nowhere else in U.S. sports do any drug regulations exist that can be broken. In 1967 the National Association of State Racing Commissioners reported 65 cases in which illegal drugs had been used on horses and fines or suspensions were ordered. There followed in 1968 the notable Dancer's Image incident in the Kentucky Derby. The drug involved was Butazolidin, which was used prior to the race to relieve soreness in the colt's ankle. At about the same time the drug was being prescribed to ease the pain in the throbbing shoulder of Boston Pitcher Jim Lonborg and was being taken by numerous other athletes in distress. But this is not surprising, for almost all of the drugs used by human athletes have been tried on horses. Among those that racing officials consider illegal within a specified time before a race are: painkillers, such as Novocain and the opiates; anti-inflammants, such as Butazolidin and corticosteroids; stimulants, such as amphetamine, strychnine and caffeine; sedatives, such as tranquilizers and barbiturates; anabolic steroids; antibiotics; and iodine (injected to slow down a horse).

But instead of implying that racing is a dirty sport, racing's drug rules suggest that, in this regard, at least, it is one of our least hypocritical. Racing has admitted that drugs can affect athletic performance, defined what doping is and established an apparatus to detect the practice and punish offenders. Other members of the athletic Establishment could do worse than study racing's regulatory drug procedures and philosophy.

One thing that makes the racing situation particularly instructive is that since the competition is between animals, the issues are not obscured by real or phony sentimentality. There is little pretense that anti-doping regulations exist for the good of the horses. The rules are for what racing potentates consider the good of the sport.

Most other sports have found it very difficult to deal with even this simple distinction. In the few sports (European cycling and soccer, and the Olympics) that do have meaningful anti-doping codes, the basis for establishing or defending them has been to protect the health and safety of the athlete. Paradoxically, the same grounds are often cited in other sports to explain why they have no doping rules: since there is no danger to life and limb because of drugs, there is no need to regulate drug use. "These young men are like sons to us," intone the men who run sport. "We are concerned with their well-being. We would never give them or let them take harmful drugs. There is no need to stir up a lot of rumors by passing unnecessary rules."

Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that some of this may be true, it is still not relevant. The cold, objective point is that drugs do not kill or corrupt enough athletes to constitute anything but a very minor public-health problem—so far. To use the protection-of-the-players argument to explain why drug regulations either are or are not necessary is intentionally or unintentionally misleading. The substantive problem is that drugs can corrupt a sport.

This is the key premise that has been accepted by racing. Without becoming embroiled in humane or metaphysical debates, racing has defined what sport is—or at least should be. Sport is a matching of two or more peers to determine who can best perform certain physical feats. For sport to be of interest, to have emotional impact, to be an artistic or a commercial success, the contestants must be as equal as possible. None should be allowed an artificial advantage over the others and, just as important, all suspicion of such advantage should be eliminated. Racing is most dogmatic on this point and has carried it to its logical conclusion. Horses are matched according to age, sex and past performances. Furthermore, in an attempt to make them all equal at the post, swifter animals are handicapped with extra weight. Racing has also unequivocally banned a long list of drugs on the grounds that if used they might give one horse an artificial edge.

Other sports at least implicitly accept this definition of sport. Every sport has rules, the basic purpose of which is to equalize competition. Like horses, many athletes are segregated for competition according to sex, age, size and skill. There are regulations governing equipment (the number of spikes in a shoe, for example), when one may practice (scholastic sports), where practices may be held (the 1968 Olympics). Without such discipline there is no sport. The rules, even such basic ones as how many shall compete for how long on what size field, court or course, are designed to focus attention on the men performing; to measure their weaknesses, virtues, speed, strength, agility, stamina, intelligence, instincts, resistance to pain and pressure and their self-control. The mystery and drama of sport, for both participants and spectators, has always been the unfolding action that occurs when men match these intangible elements of their characters. It is the thing that elevates sport to an art form, perhaps our oldest. However, the motive for using drugs is to remove both the drama and the mystery by literally fixing the outcome in the most subtle of all ways, by changing the character of the performers. Any use of drugs, no matter how benign they may be, is an attempt to destroy what is sporting about sport, to reduce sport to the status of an entertainment, a demonstration, a spectacle.

Acting on this assumption, that doping, or even the hint of it, is a sure way to despoil a sport, the racing Establishment, again avoiding hairsplitting, defined doping. Doping is giving a horse any of a number of compounds that a racing commission suspects might possibly make the animal run faster or slower than he otherwise would. The rules of the Illinois Racing Board are fairly typical: "Whoever administers or conspires to administer to any horse a drug or stimulant or depressant, internally, externally or by hypodermic method...or whoever knowingly enters any horse in any race within a period of 24 hours after any hypnotic or narcotic or stimulant or depressant has been administered...for the purpose of increasing or retarding the speed of such horse, is guilty of a felony and punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000, or by imprisonment in a state prison or a county jail for not less than one nor more than two years or by both such fine and imprisonment."

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